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Innovation

Modern Tools Help Schools Retain At-Risk Students

Administrators are finding new ways to identify students who need extra help.

By Margaret Lindquist

March 2019

The first signs of trouble might be as simple as missed classes or failing grades. But even before that, there are often other signs. A student never swipes her ID card at the library or dining hall. Another doesn’t use the bus service or attend any events on campus. The lack of even small interactions like these indicates a disconnect from the campus. And without that connection, colleges won’t retain those students.

Historically, colleges have looked at end-of-term grades as an indicator for student retention. “But once the student has failed a core course or stopped going to class, it’s too late,” says Nicole Engelbert, vice president of Oracle Higher Education Development. “There's not much that you can do, or the things that you can do are incredibly resource intensive with very low success rates. Once you’ve lost that student, bringing them back in is really hard to do.”

In the 2018–2019 academic year, colleges have had more freshmen having more difficult times than students in previous years, and academic probation, suspension, or withdrawal from schools seems to be increasing, according to Vicki Tambellini, president and CEO of the Tambellini Group, a market research and advisory firm for higher education. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that the US has the highest college dropout rate in the industrial world right now. And according to the National Student Clearinghouse, only about half of the two million students (54.8 percent) who started college this past fall will leave college with a diploma. And yet, it’s never been more important for young people to attend college or obtain some kind of post-secondary certification, as the earnings gap between high school graduates and college graduates continues to grow, according to census data analyzed by the College Board.

The institutions that will successfully navigate through this period of profound change in higher education are reimagining the work of the institution and investing in the tools that will support that mission.”

The changing student demographic is one reason student retention rates are low. Growth in the number of traditional students—those who graduate from high school and immediately go directly to a four-year college—is slowing and is expected to slow into the foreseeable future. Colleges are also seeing more first-generation college students, more students for whom English is a second language, and more students who are living in poverty—people who might not have gone to college at all a generation or two ago. These new types of students are potentially less prepared for college, often coming from less affluent K-12 systems. “That is challenging institutions to rethink or transform how they support students and changing how institutions deliver those services,” says Engelbert.

To address the evolving needs of students, faculty and staff need new tools and processes that facilitate a better student experience across the entire student lifecycle. Here are four ways colleges are changing the lesson plan to support their students.

1. Communicate with students the way they communicate with each other. Students are used to texting. They’re used to getting everything they need on their mobile device. “They’re not used to logging into email every day or going to different portals on a campus website to find the information that they need,” says Tambellini. “When they get to most college campuses today, that’s what they have to do in order to find the information that they need to succeed.” New student systems, including Oracle Student Cloud, are being used to support highly personalized, multichannel communications that deliver the right message to the right person at the right time.

2. Provide proactive support. Using a single, centralized system, universities can “nudge” students with chatbots to make sure that they’ve bought their books, filed their FAFSA form, or registered for next year’s housing. Administrators can use these interactive digital counselors to organize and manage interactions across multiple departments, channels, and devices and to ensure that students are aware of things such as office hours, dining services, and the availability of emergency grants if something happens in their life financially that impacts their attendance. A powerful aspect of chatbots is that they “scale” and ensure a consistent level of support. Colleges don’t need to hire an army of advisors or worry about whether students are receiving consistent, accurate information and benefiting from the most effective interventions. Chatbots can take care of routine reminders, freeing advisors to address more unusual or complex situations.

3. Use AI to help students choose the right path. Colleges are also looking at how courses are structured and delivered, and they are employing AI to help students navigate the registration process. There might be a thousand different classes from which students could choose, and according to Engelbert, a common reason why students don’t graduate, or graduate later than they should, is because they take the wrong classes in order to fulfill their degree requirements. “A next-generation student system will narrow the field of vision for the student—recommending what courses to take, in what order to expedite graduation” says Engelbert. “They may even preregister the student to ensure they get the classes they need.”

4. Use the cloud to better identify risk indicators. One of the most powerful benefits of cloud solutions is that administrators can get to data and identify early indicators faster, and do something about them in real time. Along with focusing on individual student behaviors, the data collected in a cloud-based system allows a university to view patterns and identify behaviors. “If the school knows that the most successful students on that campus typically eat breakfast three days a week, lunch one day a week, participate in X number of extracurricular activities or clubs, and go to at least one freshman event in the fall, they can track the students that fall outside of those norms and provide those students with more advisor outreach,” says Tambellini.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the institutions that will successfully navigate through this period of profound change in higher education are reimagining the work of the institution and investing in the tools that will support that mission. Says Engelbert, “We’re seeing the green shoots of the more substantive adoption of cloud technologies and solutions such as Oracle Student Cloud that will allow administrators to focus more on the people, processes, and cultural changes that must happen to improve student outcomes for all students.” For successful schools, this will transform how institutions approach services from residential life, financial aid, and academic support, all the way through career services and beyond.

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